Senior Health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder

(Originally published at Sixty And Me)

Playing Games May Help Avoid Depression

Perhaps one benefit of being a boomer is longevity! We tend to live longer and healthier lives than our grandparents and even our parents probably did. And in addition to having more years to enjoy those things that bring joy to our lives, we are usually able to maintain our independence well into our 80s and beyond.

For the most part, this is wonderful news. But longer, more independent living also means that many of us are living alone – often for the first time in many years – with friends and family not always nearby. This isolation, along with such things as the loss of a partner or the management a chronic illness, can put us at high risk for depression, which is more common than you may think. More than two million, or roughly six percent, of us will suffer from depression at some point. And, our depression symptoms may go beyond feeling sad and include being exhausted, having trouble concentrating and irritability.

Games may help with depression.

There are many things you can do, starting today, to help with depression. And as it turns out, one activity which may help with depression is playing games.

There has been a good amount of research recently to see what benefit, if any, playing games such as Mahjong, Scrabble and Bingo, or doing crosswords, Sudoku or jigsaw puzzles, could have on boomer mental health. The answer is, “a lot!”

Playing games may even be as effective as some antidepressants

One recent study done by the University of Georgia, for example, suggested that urban residents in China who play Mahjong (a tile-based strategy game) were less likely to report feeling depressed. Whether it was the game itself or the social interaction it provides that helped alleviate depression is unclear, but it most likely was a combination of both.

The benefits of social interaction for boomer mental health is well known (you can check out one of my recent 60 & Me blogs for more on this) and the type of strategic thinking required to play Mahjong has been shown to help keep cognitive skills sharp. The fun of playing can also trigger the release of endorphins, the “feel good” chemical in our brains which, in turn, can lift our mood.

Other games that score high on helping with mental health – both from a social aspect as well as exercising our brains – are chess, card games (think of Bridge, Rummy, Crazy Eights and Solitaire), checkers and Backgammon. Even such classics as Monopoly, Clue, word search and Wheel of Fortune can help ward off depression and improve your cognitive skills.

What I really found fascinating is that playing video games may also help reduce depression and give an overall boost to our mental health even when antidepressants haven’t worked. In one report, for example, researchers suggested that playing certain computer games was just as effective as the well-known antidepressant Lexapro at reducing depression symptoms. What was even more surprising was that participants in this study started to experience positive results in just four weeks rather than the 12 it usually takes for medication to work. An added benefit of playing video games was that participants also showed improved in cognitive skills and specifically executive functions. So, the next time your grandkids are playing video games at your place, instead of telling them to stop, you may want to join them in the fun!

A few tips on how to maximize the value of games

Here are a few tips on how to maximize the value of games for managing or preventing depression and mental health in general.

• Pick a game you like and enjoy playing since that will increase the probability you will stick with it. So, if you really hate word games, then don’t play them.
• Pick a variety of games – some that you can play alone and some that you can play with others either face-to-face or online to expand your social network.
• Look for games that offer different difficulty levels so that you can start out on an easier level and progress to harder ones as your get better at the game.
• Lastly, keep in mind that many games have online versions that you can play on your computer as well as “app” versions that you can play on your smart phone or table. With all the options today, your choices are almost limitless.

Finally, don't forget about nutrition to combat depression

Playing games is only part of what you can do to prevent or better manage depression. The other is to make sure that your brain is getting all the nutrients it needs, and in the right amounts, to reduce your risk of developing depression. And if you already have depression, a good balance of nutrients may reduce the likelihood of it getting more serious. In fact, scientists have come up with a scale that may help you choose which foods to eat for improving depressive symptoms.

Among brain-essential nutrients for preventing and treating depression, and foods that are great sources for them, are:
• Omega 3 fatty acids: fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, kale, brussel sprouts
• Magnesium: dark leafy greens, nuts (cashews, peanuts, almonds), brown rice
• Calcium: dairy products, dark leafy greens, chia seeds, sardines, tofu
• Fiber: raspberries, pears, whole wheat pasta, lentils, artichokes, green peas
• Vitamins B1, B9, B12: ( B1: beef, liver, oranges, oats, legumes; B9: legumes, citrus fruits, bananas, grain products; B12: beef, chicken, eggs, fish and dairy).
• Vitamin D: sun exposure, fortified cereals and fortified OJ, egg yolks, mushrooms
• Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, safflower oil

There is evidence that, as women, we may need a larger spectrum of nutrients to support mood, compared to men. For boomer women, it’s especially important to focus on nutrient-dense foods that will help ensure our brains are getting the right nutrients in the right amounts.

Of course, if you have been diagnosed with depression, you should not make any changes to your current treatment program without first talking with your healthcare provider